Humanitarian photographer Laura CookApprox read: 6 mins
I care about making sure the voice of some of the world’s poorest people is heard. I believe the way we work alongside people can have a powerful impact on those who participate in and those who view the visual messages we produce. Working in communications roles in international development NGOs, I found that there is a need to change the public perception of the work carried out by these organisations. Life for many in the world is a struggle, but you can still find beauty, grace and hope within those situations.
My personal vision ties in well with that of the International Guild of Visual Peacekeepers. I feel that photography goes beyond talking about technique and should explore the journey we are on as human beings in this world. As a photographer I have a commitment to displaying images that build bridges of peace and understanding.
What or who first attracted you to covering conflict? Tell us how you got started and who helped you break in.
I do not particularly cover conflict but I do work in situations, and in countries, where conflict exists. Around six years ago, now, I started to work as a photojournalist. I had been working for an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) and had found myself getting more and more frustrated with the way some NGOs (not the one I worked for, thankfully) portrayed people in some of the countries I visited. I strongly believe all people have dignity and beauty and even in the most dire of consequences we have a duty to try and show the full range of human experience rather than just portraying people as passive victims. This doesn’t mean always taking cheery-looking portraits, but it does mean making sure you treat people who you write about and photograph with the kind of respect that you would want to receive. This is why I would describe myself as a humanitarian storyteller rather than a journalist. A lot of my work is for INGOs and NGOs helping them find ways to show the spectrum of human experiences within their work.
One of my favourite areas of work that I have been involved in is participatory photography. This is important to me, as I would love to see more photographers, writers and videographers rising up in countries where conflict or disaster occurs. Often local people are best placed to tell their own stories but perhaps lack the tools, training or platforms to make that possible. I have worked with a few INGOs helping to train local partners in media.
What are the items you can’t survive without in the field?
I have three things that I always have with me in the field. Firstly; duct tape is one of those things that should be in every journalist’s bag. The uses for duct tape are endless and I always find a purpose for it on every trip. Most memorably it is great for sticking together ripped clothing! My second essential item has to be baby wipes. You cannot always guarantee a decent bathroom to get clean in when you travel to challenging destinations but at least with a baby wipe to hand you can make your face presentable and it makes you feel a little better about yourself. Finally; I still carry a paper notepad with me wherever I go. I use a digital recorder and my Mac constantly but to me there is still something special about putting pen to paper. Often my thoughts come more easily when I am jotting them down in my notebook.
What makes your approach different to getting attention from editors?
I honestly think there is great power in the simple things such as saying thank you when you are featured, being dedicated to making sure you deliver what you say you will (and on time), like being personable. Editors are human beings too! I also work within a particular niche of photojournalism, I work with Christian publications and focus on presenting the dignity that exists within the struggle of human life. Having your own vision and style is important as it helps the editor work out what is different and distinctive about your work.
Describe that item you carry around with you all the time and never use.
I always pack this overly complicated lens cleaning system in my bag that I have never once used. Even when I have had call to use it, I am nervous I am going to wreck my camera lenses with it and so I usually just wait to check my camera in for a service when I get back to the UK.
How do you measure risk?
I measure risk in a few ways and all are important, as on a personal level I don’t get too stressed out by risky situations! The first risk test is the ‘husband test’. My husband Steve knows me very well and also really encourages me in my work, so his facial expression says a lot when I mention a new travel opportunity. Secondly; I do my research with friends in the field. Simply looking on things like the British Foreign Office advice website is not good enough, really. I am fortunate to have a good network of friends around the world who often offer sage advice. Finally I pray about it. Prayer is important to me.
How do you protect yourself?
Information is the best way to protect yourself! Knowing what to expect in the field, knowing the best and worst case scenarios, knowing how to plan for different eventualities. I am a laid-back person, but really value good planning. I also have regular health checks and keep myself fit and healthy as if you look after your body well it will look after you.
Describe your most rewarding career moment.
It is really hard to pick a most rewarding career moment. Being featured in certain publications is of course always wonderful but if I am honest, the moments I treasure are always the same. They are the simple conversations I have with local people around the world. I loved sitting in a small house in the mountains of Nepal and sharing chai with a woman who had been excluded from her community. I value memories from my time spent in Sierra Leone, time spent laughing with friends or eating with people I now consider family. I recently spent time in the Philippines, and the simple joy of the beautiful landscape still makes me smile. No matter how many publications I am printed in, it is the people I meet that make the career rewarding.
Tell us about your most recent assignment or work.
Sierra Leone was my home for just under a year from 2013-2014, and while living there it was exciting to watch the country growing in economic prosperity and potential. By March 2014, when Ban Ki-Moon came to close the peace process, it really did seem that fondly nicknamed ‘Sweet Salone’ was putting its (unfair and inaccurate) reputation as a war-torn, defunct African nation behind it. ‘Salone go better’ was uttered at every turn as tourists began to fill the Western Peninsula’s white-sand beaches and investors started to snap up prime opportunities in one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Then just a couple of months later, on May 26th 2014, WHO announced that the deadly Ebola virus had reached Sierra Leone.
I returned to Sierra Leone (insured with battleface!) and spent time in Freetown and Kailahun learning about the impact of Ebola on my friends, on those living with disability, and on Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) survivors themselves. It was a humbling time and also a difficult one as it was so sad to see this country I love knocked back in the way it has been. However, there is still this spirit of determination, and in the midst of such chaos, loss, disorganisation and oppression, that spirit rises again and again and again. Sierra Leone may have been thrown a hefty blow by Mr Ebola, but she is not out for the count.
In the Philippines I was finding out about the recovery of communities following 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan (locally referred to as Yolanda). It was generally really uplifting work to see people working so hard together to restore their island homes and their livelihoods. For anyone with any doubt about the impacts of climate change, head to the Philippines and chat to the people of Samar or Leyte. Typhoons like Haiyan are becoming a more common occurrence and we are seeing the results wreak havoc on some of the world’s poorer communities. In coming years I sadly believe we will see more conflict and forced migration as a result of the pressure being put on certain countries as a result of a changing climate.
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